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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Seven out of ten if you like the music of Elgar; still six out of ten
if you're not an especial fan, since some of the imagery and the
biographical detail is still fascinating.
This film is basically in the same format as Ken Russell's acclaimed "Elgar", made for the BBC in 1962: namely, shot silent-style, with the action accompanied and illustrated by music. In this case, however, it is more explicitly a case of individual pieces, each with an accompanying tableau, rather than a seemingly continuous narrative -- at least in part this is because the biography we have here is basically the 'out-takes' from the 1960s version, being the elements that were considered unsuitable for public broadcast to the audiences of the day: implied affairs with young women, and the composer's eccentricities. And where several of the featured pieces are concerned, the director does appear to have run out of inspiration for on-screen events before the end of the music chosen, which can produce tedious results. All in all it is not quite so successful as its predecessor, but it's still enjoyable.
My favourite section, enchanting in both visuals and sound, was the sequence illustrating the Elgars' honeymoon on the Isle of Wight; we also see a surprisingly mischievous side to Sir Edward in several sections, including a sequence where he and a pompous Edwardian friend are busy plaiting garlands to bedeck a statue of Beethoven, and one where his wife is busy arranging his formal costume and medal-ribbon, and he suddenly draws his ridiculous dress sword and fakes a few swashbuckling passes as they both laugh. The 'fairies' and 'Windflower' sequences are definitely a bit monotonous, and the most tedious of all is the one that consists of nothing but the newly-married couple standing together behind a window obscured by rain -- they're supposed to be indicating their love for each other, but this is done far more effectively in more active scenarios elsewhere. Otherwise the absence of dialogue is often an advantage, as (very much in the style of Russell's favoured 20s cinema) we can gather from the body language exactly the flavour of what is being said, without the need for stilted 'reconstructions' trying too hard to be period.
The director's affection for his subject remains palpable throughout.
Ken Russell is not for everybody, and my view of him and his work has been somewhat of a mixed bag. There has been some stuff of his I liked very much, especially Mahler though even that had touches that some are not going to like, but others that I've not cared for, like his 1985 staging of Faust. Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle is not his best or one of them, and I do think his 1960s work of the composer was better, but a long way from his worst. I do agree that it does get monotonous in places in pacing and in some of the sequences(especially the couple standing by the window), and the women's appearances are too come and go. Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle is shot beautifully though, the period detail is lovingly evocative and the scenery is every bit as magical. The music is glorious and always fitting, and the Isle of Wight honeymoon sequence is just enchanting. The lack of dialogue was a good idea I think, the body language tells so much even without it, while the biographical elements are fascinating and for Russell thankfully restrained in tone. Overall, while not always consistent and securely paced, Elgar: Fantasy of a Composer on a Bicycle was fascinating and beautiful to look at. 8/10 Bethany Cox
If you haven't seen this film, sorry but you probably never will. It was commissioned for the South Bank Show, and I wouldn't be surprised if ITV have "accidentally" erased the tapes soon after the broadcast. I have never seen a presenter looking so embarrassed as Melvyn Bragg doing the introduction. Correct me if I am wrong, but I think Melvyn may have had a part in commissioning the original Russell/Elgar film that is still fondly remembered the first in an ever descending spiral of self-indulgent awfulness of composer biography films that Russell has stuck to ever since (the 1992 film about Bax is a good example). To celebrate the 40th anniversery of this magnum opus the SBS gave Russell carte blanche to self-indulge. Everyone must have known it was going to be a disaster, and those of us who tuned in were not disappointed. It had a cosy, home-made feel, like a bad family video. A bloke with a stuck on Elgar mustache and no acting ability rode up and down Malvern hills on a bike (quite easy to do a period film if all you do is shots of countryside - even so there are glimpses of the Worcester bypass in the background). The various women in Elgar's life (or rather Ken's, as most seem to be related to him) made fleeting appearances, but fortunately none was given many lines to deliver, as they might have found this difficult apparently never having acted before. Elgar's secret beloved spent rather too much of the film dancing around in gauzy material nearly covering her chest, which kept slipping so that she needed to pull it back up. Worst of all were the random interludes of small girls dancing round the woods as fairies (personally I wasn't aware of Elgar's fairy fetish but maybe Ken knows better?). Anyway the film was another unique contribution by the master. Ken Russell, we salute you.
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